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Chrislw324

Viola Positions

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I used to play the double bass and am now picking up the viola. 

 
Can someone explain all of the viola positions in reference to one of the strings? Such as "On the A string, when your index finger is on B, you're in 1st position." Etc. Etc. 
 
I'll appreciate any help. Thanks

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What you want to do is going to be tougher I think than when I went from bass clef instruments 6yrs to treble clef guitar music 20yrs? to treble violin music where the strings are named the same but are totally backwards x2 as compared to guitar.

 

Do I think you can go from bass clef to what I believe is alto clef viola- yes but don't put treble clef music into the mix, it will just take longer.   

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First, the obligatory viola joke: you only need to learn first position!  It's not quite true but probably 90% of typical orchestral music, the viola part can be played in first position (some things are awkward there, but it can be done).

 

More seriously, the chart c.m. sunday posted looks helpful.

 

Unlike bass (which I'm not very familiar with) or cello, on violin and viola typically the space between two fingers corresponds to either a whole step or a half step, so fingering and positions more directly correspond to the written note on the staff.

 

On the A string normal fingering would be: first finger = B (flat/natural), second finger = C (natural/sharp), third finger = D (natural/sharp), fourth finger = E (flat/natural)

 

First position would have your first finger "at home" on B natural, second position first finger on C sharp, third position on D natural, fourth position on E natural, fifth positon on F sharp.  Obviously these things would change a bit depending on key signature, but that's how my brain thinks of them by default.  Only very rarely do viola parts go above 5th position, usually only for music written after 1900-ish.

 

If I were picking up viola coming from cello/bass, I would focus exclusively on first position for a long time before worrying about any other position.

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Carl Flesch, in his characteristically thorough fashion, devotes 6 pages to the 1st position; 10 to the "half position"; and 3 or 4 to the 2cd.  You come off reading all that with your head spinning.

 

I gather the main factor is the frame of the hand.  If, for example, on the A string you play a B natural with the first finger and an E natural with the fourth finger, that is "first position."  If you play a B flat but the fourth finger plays either E natural or E flat, that is still first position.  "Half position" is only achieved when the first finger plays B flat and the fourth finger plays a D natural or lower.

 

 

For the first three positions, I like to use the D natural on the A string as the "guidepost" (or the appropriate equivalent on the other strings).  If you play that note with the third finger you are in 1st position; if you play that note with the second finger you are in 2cd position; if you play that note with the first finger you are in 3rd position.  

 

The reason for this approach is because we simply rarely play 3rd position with the first finger on a D sharp.  It's psychological.  D natural is what we almost always shoot for.  But we often play 2cd position with the first finger on either the C natural or C sharp.   Probably this is because the hand is "floating" in 2cd position, so it doesn't make much difference.  (It is Flesch who points out that second position lacks a sense of support.)

 

This is probably as clear as mud. 

 

But,IMO, how one approaches all this makes a difference in how well we deal with such things as sight reading.  And there are a lot of wrinkles such as extensions where the hand remains in a basic position but the first or fourth fingers will expand or contract to play a note.  

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'The best position for a viola is under the wheel of a bus'  - anonymous.

 

Disclaimer:  I love the viola, it is my primary instrument, but I love viola jokes even more . . .

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